Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Canberra Raiders
1300 Smiles Stadium
The North Queensland Cowboys have named a full strength squad for their Round 1 Telstra Premiership clash with Canberra, but an injury cloud looms over Antonio Winterstein and it won't be known until gameday if he will play.
Even if Javid Bowen or Kalyn Ponga replace Winterstein, the Cowboys will still lack some of their usual attacking grace, as well as the experienced winger's defensive skill. The Cowboys went on a pre-season camp to Queenstown to improve their cohesion with some of the newer players, and its effectiveness will be tested on Saturday.
The Raiders have several players out injured, including captain Jarrod Croker and back-up hooker Kurt Baptiste. The losses come as a blow, especially Croker, whose leadership of the team as well as his defensive skill and goal-kicking prowess will leave the Raiders short in multiple departments. Coach Ricky Stuart will undoubtedly be looking to address the defensive weakness left by Croker's absence and has named second-row forward Elliott Whitehead to start in the centres.
Why Cowboys can win: They have the Dally M medallists from the last three years in Jason Taumalolo and Johnathan Thurston. With Thurston working his magic off the back of Taumalolo charging up the middle of the field it's hard to ignore the potential of these two players. It's almost easy to forget that there are another four Queensland State of Origin players littered throughout the team in the form of Matt Scott, Gavin Cooper, Michael Morgan and Justin O'Neill, providing lethal try-scoring opportunities across the park. The Raiders will need to be on their game defensively as Thurston will undoubtedly look to exploit Canberra's left edge with the absence of Jarrod Croker.
Why Raiders can win: If the Raiders can control possession their enormous forward pack will go a long way to exhausting the Cowboys and putting points on the board. Josh Papalii has shown in the past that he has size and skill, and Shannon Boyd is 122kg of pure running and tackling. This is all supported by the brilliance of Blake Austin's running and passing game as well as Aiden Sezer's kicking and game control. It will be up to the Cowboys to control the ball well, otherwise tackling so many big bodies for so long will take its toll.
The History: Played 37; Cowboys 16; Raiders 21. The last time these teams met was in Round 18 of 2016, with the Raiders beating the Cowboys 26-12. At that time, the Cowboys were without their Origin representatives and the Raiders are also on a run of eight consecutive losses against the Cowboys in Townsville. Ricky Stuart even brought his team north early to acclimatise to the humid conditions he's expecting on Saturday night.
What are the odds: This is a great betting game and Sportsbet has seen only slightly more money on the Cowboys, but more smaller bets on the Raiders to score an upset. Canberra's price has been shortening by the day so punters are seeing plenty of value in the visitors' price, and particular interest in them at the line. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Chris Sutton; Touch judges: Brett Suttor, Nick Morel; Standby Touch judge: Wyatt Raymond.
Televised: Fox Sports - Live from 5.50pm (6.50pm AEDT).
NRL.com predicts: With the loss of Jarrod Croker it is hard to see the Raiders beating the Cowboys in Townsville. They'll need to tire the Cowboys forwards out and control the football if they want the two points. The only problem with this strategy is that there's arguably no one better at controlling the flow of the game than Johnathan Thurston, and he's going to do everything he can to exploit any weakness the Raiders leave on the left edge in Croker's absence. Even with their missing players, the Raiders will be dangerous in the middle of the field, and if they can dominate the Cowboys forwards they'll be more than capable of snatching victory off the back of their brilliant halves combination. Cowboys by 10 points.